There was a different vibe around the Hawks Championship Center this spring.
Players have moved on and new ones have taken their place. The offense and defense have changed from what the Huskers ran last season. However, neither new personnel on the roster nor new schemes have produced the change in atmosphere.
No, the source of that feeling around the building is new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
The defense was not the sole source of last season’s struggles, but Coach Mike Riley still felt he needed to make a change on that side of the ball in order for the Huskers to get to where he wants them to be.
Riley wasted no time in identifying Diaco, the former Connecticut head coach and past Notre Dame defensive coordinator, as the man for the job. Riley wanted to transition to a 3-4 defense, and the Huskers have done so under Diaco.
“The transition was smooth,” senior cornerback Chris Jones said. “Working with a new defense is going to have its rough edges in the beginning, but as it goes on it gets better and better. You start to feel comfortable; you feel the players get comfortable with it, so the more comfortable we are as a unit, it’s just better for us.”
However, Diaco would have brought new life to the practice field whether coaching the 3-4, the 4-3 or any other defense. That is just his personality.
He’s easy to find for those checking in on practice, whether he is on the field instructing players how to perform a drill or on the sideline during a scrimmage calling out plays. When one of his defenders makes a play, there isn’t a person on the field more fired up.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be around some great defensive coordinators — that’s why some of them are head coaches and where they are — but he’s one of a kind,” said cornerbacks coach Donte Williams, another new member of the defensive coaching staff.
“There are not going to be many people in this world like him. He’s going to compete at everything he does and he’s going to make sure that . . . you guys see it on the field, but he’s like that in meetings, he’s like that around the building, so he’s like that all the time.”
Diaco shows his fire in many ways. He’s the first one to greet a player on the sideline after a sack on third down. But he can be brutally honest as well.
“Being nice and telling people what they want to hear is not my version of love,” Diaco said. “Being honest and truthful and consistent and care and respect, that’s the stuff that ties that bind.”
Diaco said that was the way he was coached every step of the way, from Pop Warner to high school to college. According to Diaco, his coaches made it fun and were respectful and loving but also demanding. That is what he strives for as well.
“When he gets on you, you know it’s out of love,” sophomore outside linebacker Alex Davis said. “The first couple times I maybe messed up, he was just trying to tell me come on, catch up, and was nice with it. But after a while if you’re making the same mistakes, he has to come with some energy until you get yourself together.”
A primary goal for Diaco during spring ball was to not only teach his defensive scheme to his players but to instill his personality into them as well.
“His coaching style is amazing,” Jones said. “I love it. He’s going to get every guy to run to the ball every play. That fire that we need, Coach Diaco has it, and for him showing us that, I really feel that it’s helped us a lot with just making plays.”
“There are no days off,” linebacker Chris Weber added. “Whether you’re starting right now or you’re the back-up, you’re going to be coached the same, or the back-up to the back-up, they’re going to coach you hard and coach you the same. They’re going to correct you. As a player, that’s all you can ask for.”
The way the players have already connected to Diaco is no surprise to new defensive consultant Bob Elliott. Elliott worked with Diaco at Notre Dame in 2012 and 2013 and was an assistant coach at Iowa when Diaco played there. He also was the Hawkeyes’ defensive coordinator when Diaco was a graduate assistant. So he has seen the dynamic defensive coordinator in action.
“I didn’t need to watch that; I knew how they were going to respond to Bob,” Elliott said. “I’ve been through this before with Bob and I knew they were going to love him and they were going to react to his energy and enthusiasm and his thoroughness and knowledge of this scheme and his ability to teach. There was no doubt in my mind that he would eat it up and they would buy in. For the most part, I think that has happened.”
It’s not all bluster with Diaco, however. According to Elliott, his ability to communicate his message to his players and make sure they understand it is one of his biggest strengths.
“It’s not just energy; his communication ability is superior,” Elliott said. “He’s a great communicator, he uses the right language, he has great speaking ability, he can keep their attention and they remember what he says. That’s what a great communicator does.”
Diaco is far more than just a rah-rah figurehead as well. His role as a linebackers coach allows him to take a hands-on approach in teaching his version of the 3-4 defense. The defensive line controls the line of scrimmage and the secondary communicates calls and prevents big gains, but it is the linebackers who have to be the playmakers in a 3-4. Perhaps no position has to make a bigger adjustment from the 4-3 to a 3-4 than the outside linebackers. That being said, it is the perfect position for Diaco to be working with during practice.
“He’s been great,” Weber said. “We’re learning from the guy who, it’s his defense, so we’re hearing it right from his mouth, which has been great. We’re learning what he wants, and then coming out and doing it and maybe doing it wrong and then having him come up in the meeting room and correcting us.”
As Diaco goes, so do the rest of the coaches. Elliott, Williams, linebackers coach Trent Bray and defensive line coach John Parrella all feed off Diaco’s energy, raising the level of the whole staff.
“His energy is all day long,” Elliott said. “He’s an all-day sucker, now. He goes from early morning to late at night. And it helps me; I feed off his energy. I think all the coaches do and all the players do. That’s why my confidence in Bob and what he can do is complete.”
Bray and Diaco both work with the linebackers, a fitting pairing as Bray is capable of going toe-to-toe with Diaco. With those two on the field, neither the outside nor the inside groups can ever mail it in. And if a player ever fails to run a drill the correct way, neither Diaco nor Bray is shy about hopping in and showing them how it’s supposed to be done.
“It’s great,” Weber said. “They’re both really, really good football coaches . . . Each day we get to learn. They each bring something different as far as what we’re learning that day; one might be with the inside, one might be with the outside. Their energy and what they expect from us, I think it’s great from the older guys down, to learn that from them.”
Williams, the youngest coach on the staff, is cut from the same cloth. In fact, at a quick glance one might mistake him for a player on the field. Rocking shorts, tights and a pair of gloves every practice, Williams comes ready to participate whenever he deems it necessary. He said he doesn’t know any other way to coach.
“He’s one of us,” sophomore cornerback Lamar Jackson said. “He’s out there ready. He’ll jam you up. He’s not afraid to get in there and show you how to do it. He’s a great coach.”
Jackson said the players can relate to Williams on and off the field; they go to him any time they need advice of any kind.
“We respect it more than anything, just seeing that he cares about us; he’s actually going to show us what to do,” Jackson said. He’s going to relate in every way possible. So that alone, that makes you bring energy yourself and makes you want to make him proud.”
There is a new vibe around the Nebraska defense this year. It starts at the top with the defensive coordinator and trickles down to the assistants and players. The impact of the change to the 3-4 is yet to be determined, but there has been no lack of enthusiasm as the team has tackled the transition.
And it all starts with Bob Diaco.
“This is Nebraska, this is football country, so of course the players are going to feed off that,” Williams said. “Any time you’ve got someone that is 110 percent in everything they do, that’s what the players come here for.”
This story originally appeared in the 2017 Hail Varsity Yearbook. Don’t have a copy? Subscribe today.